For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, now is an important time to be thinking about Japan's position overseas. Maritime and territorial disputes in the East China Sea highlight the importance of maintaining stability at a time when China is concerned about resources and strategic access to the region. Tokyo's plans to expand its outreach in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America put it on a collision course with other state and non-state actors. The Islamic State's recent kidnapping and killing of two Japanese nationals was a stark reminder of the risks that come with overseas involvements.
Abe is also trying to balance military normalization with Japan's non-violent, non-interventionist approach to foreign policy at a time of economic uncertainty. The evolution of Japan's primary means of overseas engagement was tabled in early 2014, but the latest policy shift opens up more opportunities to establish regional and global partnerships with sympathetic nations, moves that would likely antagonize competing nations such as China and South Korea.
Reaching Out From Isolation
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Japan found itself once more secluded, this time by no choice of its own. In addition to its geographic isolation, Tokyo was cut adrift from the international community, with the exception of an occupying United States. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Japan made fledgling attempts to reach out under the auspices of post-war reparations, but the only international outreach Tokyo could muster was through tentative assistance packages. What was considered quaint at first became a more serious proposition in the 1970s when Japan emerged as a major economic force.
The Cold War provided stability for Japan. Disavowing militarily aggression while under the protective blanket of the United States, Tokyo did not have the defense expenditure, military commitments or foreign policy dilemmas of NATO or the Warsaw Pact countries. Under the doctrine named after Japan's first post-World War II prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, efforts were channeled into commercial heavy industry, innovation and commerce. Japan relied on the United States for trade as well as safety. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Japan embraced the opportunity to expand its international influence beyond traditional agricultural and infrastructure cooperation into areas focused more on security, society and enduring partnerships.
The Official Development Assistance fund was Japan's primary means of maintaining an international influence for more than 60 years, but changing global and regional dynamics and Tokyo's move toward military normalization require a more nuanced approach. The new Development Cooperation Charter continues Japan's general philosophy of proactively contributing to the peace, stability and prosperity of the international community. As expressed by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the emphasis is not on unilateral assistance, but on extending cooperation with recipients to enable self-help and self-reliance. The ministry also stressed the importance of using overseas funding and assistance to develop the private sector and promote growth and investment.
The charter has a number of overarching principals, policies and priorities. The baseline ODA policy stipulates that funds must be used for economic development, democratization, environmental awareness, the provision of human rights and basic freedoms in recipient countries while prohibiting the use of funds in defense or military budgets — or for general use in ways that could contribute to or exacerbate conflict. The Development Cooperation Charter relaxes the rules slightly, creating the opportunity for enhanced partnership and development between militaries, an area Japan has not been able to capitalize on previously. Yet, Japan must carefully balance its overseas aspirations with its domestic economic concerns. Growth has slowed, and although Abe's economic reforms are designed to maneuver Japan out of its deflationary cycle, the country still has to deal with tepid household spending and its aging, declining population.
The Chinese Conundrum
Although Japan has been a stalwart financier of Chinese economic activity since 1979, with around $20 billion to date, the amount of ODA funds Beijing receives in recent years has dwindled. This is in part because of China's rise as an economic and military power in its own right, and in part because of increasing competition between Tokyo and Beijing. Parallel to the reduced ODA funding, Japanese businesses are reducing their trade and interaction with China as well.
In terms of defense, China is rapidly establishing itself as a credible military power in the Asia-Pacific region. After the U.S. Navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy competes with Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force to be next most credible naval power there. China's newly developed maritime capabilities have translated into aggressive posturing across the East and South China seas, and Beijing has made a number of provocative moves regarding airspace restrictions and contested islands. Japan's new charter allows for closer military cooperation with other nations beyond a purely humanitarian framework, and Japan can provide assistance in various ways.
Surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, for instance, are technically non-offensive platforms, though Beijing has a different opinion of what constitutes "non-combat" equipment. Providing coast guard vessels for nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines would benefit those countries because they have historically prioritized investment in shallow-water capabilities over blue water ships. Therefore, Japanese aid in the form of coastal vessels frees up defense budget allocation for oceangoing warships. Beijing has already expressed concern over the direction it sees Japan taking in regard to its military assistance programs.
Beyond immediate territorial concerns, Beijing and Tokyo are increasingly competing elsewhere in the world. They see partnerships with continental powers in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East as key areas for expansion. In addition to the foreign policy effort, investment overseas also paves the way for businesses to exploit new markets, including construction, mining and logistics companies and environmental, civil liaison, humanitarian and non-government organizations. Japan has criticized China's approach to overseas aid and development, calling it exploitative and prone to corruption. Tokyo's approach is more considered in the sense that the charter directly references human values, though Japan has been criticized for its imperial history and willingness to use aid as a means for Japanese business to gain a toehold in emerging economies.
Tokyo's imperatives for trade are pressing, considering that Japan is an island nation with a fraction of mainland China's resources. However, with roughly a fifth of the world's population, China has its own supply concerns, and global demand for Chinese commodities is slowing. In addition to competing with each other, both powers are also experiencing periods of financial uncertainty. Economic contraction essentially limits the scale of overseas investment, and China is already curtailing some of its more ambitious projects in Africa because of its fluctuating economy.
Through its ODA programs, Japan has established strong credentials when it comes to enacting infrastructure, development and humanitarian projects. China is still a novice when it comes to exercising soft power and green diplomacy, an area Japan has mastered out of necessity. China has contributed significantly to infrastructure investments overseas, but from Japan's perspective, Beijing is much less scrupulous about where that money goes, treating aid projects merely as business transactions with the host country and as stimulus money for the Chinese firms sent abroad.
The move toward internationalism creates another conundrum for Japan: In addition to competing with China in certain markets, Japan risks alienating the United States after more than 50 years of close partnership. Tokyo has sought to improve its ties with Iran and Russia, countries that have traditionally had antagonistic relations with the West, if not open hostility to Washington. The irony is that the United States has been encouraging Japan to take a more independent, expansionist role, but it may consider Japan's new alliances unsavory.
The Time Is Right Now
Japan wants to expand its diplomatic apparatus and sees the opportunity to do this through improved international relations. Military interaction in a non-combat role is a useful tool employed by most developed militaries. Japan understands that it cannot afford to appear imperialist or aggressive, and military assistance for natural disasters, humanitarian relief efforts and peacekeeping operations are viable methods of military engagement for the perceived greater good, a claim that is difficult for rivals to discredit.
Building up social credentials through partnerships with organizations and institutions known for their humanist perspectives is a good way to build goodwill in the global political environment. This is important to emphasize because the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will take a much more proactive role in the coming years, especially in the intelligence realm, where military partnerships could prove extremely beneficial.
Rather than making drastic, outright changes that could be seen as provocative or aggressive, Japan is taking gradual steps. Even so, as the recent kidnappings of two Japanese nationals prove, with an increased international profile comes the acceptance of inherent risks. Tokyo must reconcile its pacifism with the obligation to take action overseas, no easy task morally or practically. The biggest question, however, is whether Japan can continue to provide overseas aid in its previous volumes. Abe's economic reforms have yet to take hold completely, and with increased defense spending and a shrinking workforce, Japan will have to carefully manage its future aspirations.